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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 23, 2011: Authentic Voices

William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) is probably one of the most controversial, and definitely in many quarters one of the most reviled, novels of the last fifty years. The most obvious and certainly one of the most central reasons for the attacks which the book has received from African American writers and historians and scholars (among other critics) is that Styron focuses the psychology and passion of his fictionalized Nat Turner on a teenage white girl, ignoring potential (if ambiguous and uncertain) evidence for a slave wife of Turner’s and greatly extrapolating this relationship with the white girl from a few minor pieces of evidence in the historical record. Yet having read at length the critiques on Styron, including those captured in a book entitled Ten Black Writers Respond, I have to say that an equally central underlying reason for the impassioned attacks on the book is the simple fact that Styron, a white novelist (and a Southerner to boot), had written a novel in the first-person narrative voice of this complex and prominent African American historical figure.
The issue there is partly one of authenticity, of who does and does not have the ability to speak for a particular community and culture. To me, while there may well be specific reasons to critique Styron’s choices and efforts in this novel, on that broader issue I believe that one of, if not the, central goal of all fiction should be to help readers connect to and engage with identities and experiences and communities and worlds; seen in that light, Styron’s novel is, at least in its goals, hugely ambitious and impressive. But it pales (no pun intended) in comparison with a similar, entirely forgotten novel from nearly a century prior: William Justin Harsha’s Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief, Told by Himself (1881). Harsha, the son of a prominent preacher and pro-Indian activist and himself an impassioned advocate of Native American rights, published this novel anonymously, and since it is narrated (as the subtitle suggests) in the first-person voice of a Native American chief, his project represents an even more striking attempt to speak from and for an identity and culture distinct from the author’s own. The novel is long and far from a masterpiece—it features in a prominent role one of the least compelling love triangles I’ve ever encountered—but in this most foundational stylistic and formal (and thematic and political) choice of Harsha’s, it is to my mind one of American literature’s most unique and amazing efforts.
And yet was it necessary? Just a few years later, Paiute chief and leader Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins would publish her Life Among The Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1886), a work of autoethnography and history and political polemic that, like all of Winnemucca’s life and work, makes clear just how fully Native American authors and activists and leaders could and did speak for themselves in this period (as they had for centuries, but with far greater opportunities to publish and disseminate broadly those voices than at any earlier point). Winnemucca, like the Ponca chief Standing Bear whose lecture tour inspired Helen Hunt Jackson’s conversion to activism and like numerous other Native American leaders (including Inshta Theamba, also known as “Bright Eyes,” who wrote the introduction to Harsha’s novel), spoke and worked tirelessly for her tribe and for Native American rights more generally, and her book illustrates just how eloquent and impressive her voice was in service of those causes. Although her individual and cultural identities became, in both her life and the text, quite complicated as a result of her experiences as a translator and mediator between her tribe and the US army and government—complexities that are the focus of the Winnemucca chapter in my upcoming book—such complications are, if anything, a further argument for the value of hearing and reading her own voice, rather than trying to access it through intermediaries or fictional representations.
Everyone should, indeed, read Winnemucca’s book, and if we had to choose one Native American-focused text from the decade to cement in our national narratives, I’d go with hers without hesitation. But we don’t, and we don’t even necessarily have to decide whether her voice is more authentic than Harsha’s narrator’s, or Jackson’s Ramona’s and Alessandro’s, or Theamba’s. There may be some value in that question, but to me the far greater value is in reading and hearing as many voices as we can, from this period and on these issues and in every other period and frame, to give us the most authentic understanding of the whole complex mosaic of American identity. More tomorrow, on a unique, thoughtful, and profoundly inspirational voice from the margins of one of America’s earliest communities.
PS. Three links to start with:
3)      OPEN: Which voices strike you as the most authentic? The least so?

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